…verification suspended Wednesday night for want of agents
…dispute over method of verification of Region 4 SOPs stalls declarations
By Lisa Hamilton
GUYANA awaits the verification of Statements of Poll (SOPs) belonging to polling stations in Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica) before the final declaration of the results of Monday’s general and regional elections, even as the process was suspended twice on Wednesday due to disagreements on how they ought to be tabulated and the unavailability of staff respectively.
There was much commotion outside the tabulation and media centre of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) on Wednesday, after discrepancies were noted in the tabulation of the region’s SOPs. The process was therefore halted at around 15:30hrs by Chief Elections Officer (CEO), Keith Lowenfield.
The matter drew the attention of leaders and representatives from all political parties; members of the diplomatic corps; international and local observers and the GECOM Commission and staff which all made their way to the centre located at the Ashmins building, downtown Georgetown.
By 17:00hrs, noticing the constant arrival of high-profile officials, a crowd began to form at the cross roads opposite the building. The media had been notified earlier by Public Relations Officer (PRO), Yolanda Ward at 15:30hrs that party agents did not agree on the verification process for the region and the CEO therefore ended the process. The media quickly made their way over to the scene and, after a lengthy wait, was able to speak with the CEO when he exited the building.
He stated that the commission was scheduled to re-commence its verification process of SOPs collected for Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica) on Wednesday, and did so smoothly until the Region’s Returning Officer (RO), Clairmont Mingo, fell ill and had cause to be hospitalised.
Mingo was seen being transported from the GECOM tabulation centre around 10:30hrs with an oxygen mask into a waiting ambulance with the assistance of medical practitioners. “So, there was an initial stoppage. We couldn’t have recommenced until much later when the clerk to the Returning Officer was advised to continue the process,” he said.
It was shortly after the process recommenced at around 14:00hrs that an alarm was raised about discrepancies noted in the SOPs being tallied. Reports are that a summarised spreadsheet was used by a GECOM Clerk who took over from Mingo and the results on the sheet did not match that of the SOPs with the number of votes appearing higher than the number of voters.
“During the process some errors were discerned. We would have completed the first eight statements and there were some errors contained in six of eight statements, for example. The representatives of the parties along with the observers spoke with me, we stopped the process, I enquired what is [and] I was advised and I advised my staff along with the [party] agents and the observers that I’ll engage Madame Chair and the Commissioners as to the way forward,” Lowenfield said.
Subsequently, Chair of the GECOM, Justice (Ret’d) Claudette Singh, deliberated with members of the commission and came to the decision that the SOPs for Region Four will be verified by “statement to statement”.
If errors continue, Lowenfield said that there is a prescribed procedure and if this too fails he will be involved with his SOPs to have a resolution to the issues. “Be prepared that we’ll be working through the evening to bring closure so that we can move to the next subset which is the declarations of the results of District Four,” an internal video which later surfaced showed Lowenfield telling those authorised to be in the center.
There are 300 plus statements for the Region to be completed and the process will commence with the East Bank of Demerara (EBD) followed by the East Coast of Demerara (ECD) and any other remaining statements for the region. There are about 192 SOPs in EBD and about 170 in the ECD while the verification process for North and South Georgetown has been completed. Once this is completed, there will be a public declaration for the region. The law prescribes that once there is a declaration, any requested recounts can be done within noon of the following day.
Prior to the official report on the matter, Lowenfield, and several party members, spoke to the media giving their account of the situation. Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams said that while the opposition has accused the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) of being behind the discrepancies, it was a GECOM staff which presented a new spreadsheet which didn’t sit well with the party agents.
“The spread sheet was something that was inherited from their time. They used to verify with spreadsheets, now they don’t want spreadsheets they want to use Statements of Polls. We have no objection, let’s just get it over with,” he said. “It’s GECOM’s document. GECOM can, under the law, regulate its own procedure so GECOM could decide it wants to use a spreadsheet but GECOM has agreed to use the Statements of Poll.”
Speaking on behalf of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), Opposition General Secretary, Bharrat Jagdeo, said that all parties had agreed on a way forward. “I’m satisfied with the steps that they have taken now,” he said. He was pleased that the commission agreed to put up a screen for the visible display of the SOPs tabulated and when sub-districts are finished, the results will be printed and given to all political parties for reconciliation.
Meanwhile, The Carter Center’s Chairperson of the Board of Trustees and grandson of former US President Jimmy Carter, Jason Carter, said that the agreement made between GECOM and involved stakeholders regarding the tabulation of SOPs should see resolution soon.
“You need to be patient and you need to make sure that the count is accurate and more so to make sure that it’s quick. So, they’re in there with maximum transparency trying to ensure that everybody gets to take a look at each of the Statements of Polls to determine precisely what the actual count was,” he said. “It may take some time but we call on everyone to be patient and peaceful as we await the results.”
US Ambassador to Guyana, Sarah-Ann Lynch, and British High Commissioner to Guyana, Gregg Quinn, also notified the media that the situation was resolved and the re-tabulation process would be restarted. The crowd of persons opposite the centre had now increased and members of the public were voicing their concerns in relation to the tabulation of the region’s votes.
Asked what words of advice he would leave to the anxious public, Lowenfield said: “They should remain calm. At the moment, what the commission is striving to ensure — while we understand the anxiety on the part of the citizenship — we do not want to ensure transparency is lost in the entire process. So, at the time the whole posture is to ensure that there is transparency in the process and plead with citizens to remain calm so that we have the correct results that will be the satisfaction of, I dare say, to all.”
However, although these reports seemed positive, at around 20:00hrs that same night, the agreement fell apart. There are disagreements surrounding a decision to stop the verification process for the night although it was previously agreed that stakeholders would work through the night. Region Four, which holds the country’s largest amount of voters, is the only outstanding Region from which declarations have not been made. The Region holds 879 polling stations and 285,618 electors. It could be the deciding factor for which party wins the elections.